by Scott Harrison
DURING MY YEARS as an A Level examiner many things
about the scripts that I read surprised me. Some scripts were
breathtaking in their grasp of historical problems, whereas others made
me wonder what had happened to two years of study. However, the most
surprising thing was the phenomenon of the 'Centre answer'. This is
where all or most of the candidates of one centre (or school) answer the
same limited range of questions with almost similar responses - the same
structure, the same quotations, the same conclusions. Where this
answered the question set, the teacher would no doubt be pleased to sec
their thoughts reflected so faithfully in the work of their students.
Sadly/ the 'Centre answer' does not always (or even often) answer the
question, and the teacher would be horrified to see that his or her
advice to think about and to plan answers had been ignored.
Revision and Recall
Having attended to the immediate problem, the file should not be allowed to lie dormant until the exams loom large. The notes should be regularly reviewed. Review in this sense can simply be reading through the notes, refining, and filling gaps. It is also a necessary process in learning information. Consider the experience of cramming in a frantic two weeks before the examination. Crammed information, learned in sequence, will be repeated in sequence, and more easily forgotten. Long term memory requires repetition or reinforcement, but once this is done it allows greater understanding and flexibility of thought, and closer grasp of detail.
This process of review can therefore be seen as contributing towards the final revision process, that of recall. Ultimately there is a need to know certain information which can be recalled as appropriate. Do not, however, assume that the logical way to generate recall is to revise through your file from one end to the other, one page triggering the next like the cues in a play. If you learn notes in this linear way, it is likely that you will reproduce them in the same way in the exam, whatever the question - and most probably will fall into the trap of writing the narrative style of history which receives so little reward from examiners. Far from this, the order in which you organise learning for recall will have a very significant effect on your examination performance, and it requires very careful planning.
Identifying and Using Key Points
Let us return to the initial reworking of notes. Reworking is all the more important because it will aid later recall and increase the ability to answer the question in a relevant and direct way. The best form of reworking is to identify the small number of key points or ideas which are fundamental aspects of the subject in question. These key points should then be highlighted so that they become the foundation of subsequent revision. The key points may be, for example, causal factors, components, or outcomes of a problem. Each can be thought of as the main point of a paragraph, the detail of which is subsidiary and can be learned at a later stage. In the accompanying diagram a number of key points have been identified within two important subject areas. Having identified key points the examples show how, by applying a variety of questions to that subject area, the key points can be looked at from a number of viewpoints and in a variety of combinations. The effect of this process is to make learning and knowledge flexible, and rooted in clear understanding. This is important because it is a pre-condition for examination answers that the candidate will need to confront the question directly, keep to the point, and avoid narrative. It also allows a variety of styles of revision which will make the process far more interesting and efficient. For example, the sketching out of pattern notes to identify the structure of an answer cannot only provide good reinforcement for revision purposes, but also gives practice in an excellent method of planning essays under examination conditions. This skill can and should be carried into the examination itself.
Reworking to establish key points, then, should be a long-term strategy. There should not be a single page of unworked notes in the file. In parallel with the notes, it may also be considered worthwhile to write revision notes - for example, a set of key points in a jotter or on a card system - as a shorthand revision system which will be of use right up until the moment of the examination. In turn, these will assist in the process of review and recall.
Key Point Dependant Information Detail
What of the mass of fine detail which must be used in support of the key points? This is the body of historical facts and judgements which will make up the bulk of the essay. Key points will provide the structure which will primarily determine the level of mark given by the examiner. Material in support will determine how high within that level the mark will rise. Also, of course, one cannot make bricks without straw; a certain amount of basic knowledge of the period will be taken for granted, and if it is not apparent then essays will not even qualify as historical writing.
For this reason you must get to grips with the fine detail too. If one pursues the idea of key point revision, fine detail should be learned as a dependant of the key point rather than, for example, by whatever came before it in the file. By learning information in 'pockets' like this it makes the whole subject more manageable, flexible and applicable, and less likely to crumble under the pressure of examination.
Revision, then, is far from being an activity which comes at the tail end of the course. If you accept that the notes in your file will play a major part in accumulating and regenerating historical knowledge and understanding, the process of revision must begin at the note-making stage, and must underpin subsequent activity. Certainly this will help you as an individual to think historically and thus to adapt what you know to the specific questions confronting you in the examination. By the way, it will also relieve the examiners from the monotony of the 'Centre answer'.
Scott Harrison. Humanities Adviser, London Borough of Havering.